Death, taxes and the voices of our ancestors

The inspiration behind this post is twofold; firstly, the ongoing work of Dr Laura King, Dr Nick Barratt, Jackie Depelle and many others to encourage closer co-operation between academic historians and genealogists, but more immediately, a tweet by Hallie Rubenhold, the author of The Five, a recently-published and fascinating book which puts the victims of Jack the Ripper centre stage and allows us to hear their voices and understand their lives. On 14 March 2019, Hallie tweeted:

I do feel that what our culture recognises as ‘history’ needs some recalibrating. For too long its focus has been ‘the great deeds of great men’ – monarchs, Generals, politicians, wars, Acts passed by governments. By these standards, the lives of ordinary people are disregarded.


This struck a chord with me as, on the same day and at almost exactly the same time, I had tweeted this:

Lord Denning’s 1966 Committee on Legal Records concluded that “legal records should not be kept for purely genealogical uses.” His report resulted in the wholesale destruction of 1000s of records which would have made our work today more productive.

Feel free to boo and hiss…


Lord Denning, Master of the Rolls (1962-1982). Feel free to boo and hiss…

My background is in family history and I was fortunate enough to work for the National Archives for many years. During my time at the Family Records Centre I was able to gain some in-depth knowledge of the key sources for family historians. One of the areas which I was most interested in was the Inland Revenue’s collection of records relating to the collection of death duties and I developed a good understanding of how the records worked and how they might be best used by family historians.

Briefly, the surviving records comprise:

  • a series of registers, dating from 1796 to 1903, in which the payments of death duties (i.e. Legacy Duty, Succession Duty and Estate Duty) are recorded
  • a series of contemporary indexes (or ‘alphabets’) which, in the pre-digital world provided the means of access to the registers[1]
  • a collection of correspondence for the years 1812-1836 only
  • a sample of case files (residuary accounts) also dating from 1796 to 1903

The registers are a treasure trove for family historians and my talk about them – Death & Taxes; understanding the Death Duty registers – is one of my most popular. I did the talk for a family history group earlier this week and it was while preparing for it that I started to ponder a theme which I felt that these documents illustrated particularly well; namely the way in which the voices of our ordinary ancestors have been silenced. Or, to put it another way, the way in which our ability to retell the stories of the lives of our ancestors has been ‘culturally suppressed’ through the selective preservation of records. So, when I saw Hallie’s tweet, I knew I had to get my thoughts in to some sort of order.

The residuary account files (TNA record series IR 19) provide a perfect example of this. As a direct result of Lord Denning’s 1966 report, the decision was made to destroy the files but, in line with Denning’s conclusion that “historians wanted records which illustrated the workings of the courts”[2], a ‘specimen sample’ of the files was preserved. The sample comprises 25 randomly selected files from each year between 1796 and 1811 and 50 files per year thereafter, up to 1903 (25 files relating to administrations and 25 relating to wills from each year). It looks as if they literally walked along the shelves and pulled bundles of 25 files at a time; the rest were incinerated.

It’s difficult to say precisely how many files were destroyed. There are over 3 million entries in the contemporary ‘alphabets’ and if only 50% of the entries related to cases which had residuary accounts we would be looking at 1.5 million files[3]. Even if it was only 10% we would still be dealing with a substantial collection of records. Instead we are left with 233 bundles comprising, by estimation, no more than 5000 files.

1854-Arthur Scollay death duty IR26-528 f.495 (2)

Death Duty register from 1854, showing references to the now-destroyed residuary accounts.
The National Archives reference: IR26/528 f.495

And access to this surviving ‘sample specimen’ is anything but straightforward; in fact I would argue that a speculative search is almost certainly going to be a waste of time, as your chances of finding a surviving file is so low. However, this is a collection of records crying out for a cataloguing project; if your ancestor’s file happens to have survived, believe me, you would want to know about it.

Each of the files (from 1812 onwards) includes a pre-printed form which summarises the value of the deceased’s estate, “subdividing the estate under broad headings”. This quote is taken from the National Archives’ description of the IR 19 series[4] but what the catalogue doesn’t tell us is that virtually every file (at least all the ones that I’ve seen) also includes an inventory of the deceased’s property. As the probate courts stopped asking for inventories to be taken in 1782, the value of these records, not just to genealogists, but also to local, social, political and economic historians is surely obvious. I seriously believe that these records, had they not been wantonly destroyed, would now be recognised as one of the most important sources for nineteenth century family history research, alongside our census returns, wills and birth, marriage and death records.

IR 19-55 part of inventory

Inventory of Stephen Turner of Westfield, Sussex from residuary account file (1829).
The National Archives reference: IR19/55

It would be easy to defend Lord Denning on the grounds that perhaps people weren’t so aware of the potential importance of such documents fifty years ago but that argument can quickly be addressed by reference to a letter written to the Home Office in 1891 by the then-Registrar General, Brydges Henniker. It had been suggested that the returns from the 1851 and 1861 census should be disposed of as they were taking up valuable space in the Houses of Parliament. Henniker’s response is music to the ears:

…in my humble opinion it would be very unwise to destroy National records, the value of which will probably be hereafter very great to those persons who wish to investigate the condition of this country in past times. It is doubtlessly true that these documents have not been hitherto consulted. Not only, however, is it within my knowledge that they would already have been examined, had not the difficulty of access to them been so great as to be practically insuperable to a private enquirer, but I would point out that the value and utility of such records depends to a great extent upon their antiquity, and that documents which are as yet only forty years old have not yet reached their stage of full utility[5].

But it’s not just the lack of forethought on Denning’s part which I find so infuriating; there’s another side to the selection process which brings us right back to Hallie Rubenhold’s comment about history’s focus being on “the great deeds of great men – monarchs, Generals, politicians…” Because in addition to the ‘specimen sample’ which we’ve already looked at, a separate collection (in record series IR 59) was made of files relating to, what the National Archives’ catalogue describes as the accounts of ‘well-known persons’.

The series currently comprises 1398 files (it’s still accruing, although the most recent addition appears to be from 2003). And guess what? The files relate almost exclusively to those in the upper echelons of society and, you probably won’t be too surprised to hear that fewer than 100 of them relate to women – and many of the women included are members of the royal family or of the nobility.

There are, of course, some worthy names on the list; it includes some of our greatest writers, artists and scientists but a quick glance confirms my suspicion that members of the nobility and gentry are, shall we say, over represented…?

I always used to feel that it was a good thing that these files had been retained; that in some respects, having them was better than having none. And, as any destruction of archives necessarily carries with it some serious questions, I can understand why I felt that way. But now I’m not so sure.

The preservation of these accounts of ‘well-known persons’ just serves to reinforce the idea that the lives of these people are of more historical importance than the lives of those whose files went up in flames fifty or so years ago. Here’s that ‘cultural suppression’ in action and it goes right to the heart of the debate about the silencing of the voices of the ‘ordinary’ citizen.


[1] The alphabets are available on the Findmypast website at:
[2] Archives and Archivists in 20th Century England by Elizabeth Shepherd (2016) p.46
[3] I realise that I need to research this question more thoroughly but my experience of using these records in my own research suggests that the majority of the entries in the registers are annotated with the tell-tale R.A. reference.
[5] TNA HO 45/10147/b19513 quoted in Census: The Expert Guide by Peter Christian and David Annal (Bloomsbury Press, 2014). With thanks to Audrey Collins for bringing the quote to my attention.

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3 Responses to Death, taxes and the voices of our ancestors

  1. Pingback: When Digitisation Goes Bad Part I: The Night Of The Living Death Duties | Lifelines Research

  2. Thanks Teresa. I keep swinging between thinking that I’m over-reacting and feeling really angry about it!


  3. Teresa says:

    Thanks for bringing this to my attention…how short-sighted and awful that they destroyed all those records…and I agree, so tired of hearing people getting excited about finding royal blood in their lines…why not celebrate those ancestors who struggled to survive everyday life and ensure their descendants would be around to search for them…

    Liked by 1 person

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